Friederike von Kirchbach was general secretary of the German Evangelical Church Congress and provost of the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia. The retired pastor has been chairwoman of the RBB Broadcasting Council since 2013. Ms. von Kirchbach, how do you rate the events surrounding RBB director Patricia Schlesinger?
I take these events very seriously. On July 15, I invited to a special session of the Broadcasting Council: something like this only happens if the situation is really highly complex. I am very alarmed.
What role does the Broadcasting Council play here?
There is this beautiful expression of “organic cooperation”. There are bodies that control public service broadcasting, which is a democratic institution. The bodies, on the one hand the Board of Directors, on the other hand the Broadcasting Council, have different functions: The Board of Directors consists of eight members and monitors the management of the director with the exception of the content of the RBB offers. The Board of Directors acts in an advisory and supportive capacity, particularly with regard to financial decisions. The Broadcasting Council is responsible for monitoring and complying with the mandate laid down in the RBB state contract and advises the director in general matters relating to offers. The reason for the composition is to ensure diversity of opinion, which should be reflected in the RBB program. The Broadcasting Council itself has no influence on its composition.
Who belongs to the Broadcasting Council? The Broadcasting Council has 28 members. They are made up of representatives of socially relevant groups. When performing their tasks, they represent public life and thus the general public in the states of Berlin and Brandenburg. The members are not bound by orders from parties or organizations. But the Broadcasting Council is the central body, because it fills the board of directors and appoints the director. It was when I was chairwoman of the Broadcasting Council that we appointed Ms. Schlesinger to her position. For me, this is one of the most important functions of the Broadcasting Council.
Why did you choose Patricia Schlesinger back then?
Ms. Schlesinger is a highly committed programmer. She is an outstanding journalist who has won many awards. We wanted RBB to experience an upswing. Because compared to the other state broadcasters, the RBB is not particularly well placed. Patricia Schlesinger has taken important steps, but they haven’t quite had the effects we wanted.
At the moment, RBB television is the worst of all third-party programs in terms of ratings – that means that Ms. Schlesinger didn’t actually ignite…
I know that people are always working hard to get better. There are many people at RBB who do a good job. After all, the station received three Grimme awards this year.
And what has to happen that Ms. Schlesinger can remain in office? What are the criteria for you to say it can go on – and when do you say it can’t go on like this?
At the moment, the state audit office, the auditors and a law firm are busy examining the allegations against Ms. Schlesinger. We are awaiting the vote of this law firm. And when these results are in, we will make a decision on how to proceed. That is the plan.
How much time does this office have left? The reputation of the RBB is sinking hourly at the moment. Can the broadcaster even afford to hang around until autumn?
Unfortunately, the appointment has been delayed because there are very complex construction problems with the digital media house. There are so many files to be checked that the law firm, contrary to the original statements, will probably only be able to do this by the end of September. That is the position we have as the Broadcasting Council. The next regular meeting of the Broadcasting Council is on September 22nd, we hope that we will already have the first results by then. That does not exclude that we need another special session, that will be decided in the further development of events.
A question that is asked in public is why the RBB director receives almost twice as much salary as the Brandenburg Prime Minister.
I have incredible respect for what the directors of public broadcasting do. They get high salaries, that’s a known fact. But it’s cheap to throw that in the basket of general accusations. The salary debate can and must be conducted, but it doesn’t belong here for the time being.
But there is a tariff system in the public service that is also relevant for many other institutions. A president of the state audit office, a president of the state constitutional court, even a Protestant state bishop are paid according to tariff group B. Shouldn’t the director of the RBB be grouped accordingly?
That’s an interesting thought. But at the moment it is neither my job nor that of the Broadcasting Council to conduct this debate. I know that in different places within the ARD people are thinking about criteria for directors’ salaries, but that’s another topic.
Patricia Schlesinger was criticized for the dinner she gave in her private apartment. Why do you do something like this – and what do you think of it?
The RBB still has room for improvement when it comes to its popularity. I think we need multipliers. We need people who are committed to their state broadcaster. Inviting multipliers to dinner is a legally possible form that also happens elsewhere. But perhaps one really has to ask oneself whether such dinners in a private apartment are still relevant in the age of transparency.
As Chair of the Broadcasting Council, were you yourself a guest at such a meal?
I was never there, no.
Then it’s about the cost increases at the new media house. When were you first informed about this?
The Broadcasting Council was informed about the plans from the start. A lot is now becoming known in the details. At the next Broadcasting Council meeting on September 22, we want to be informed in detail about the financial situation regarding the construction of the new media building.
But have you really not been informed about this yet?
The Board of Directors reported to us on its work at every meeting of the Broadcasting Council. There, of course, it was also about the digital media company. But the details, which are now being discussed publicly, will only take center stage at the September meeting. So the higher costs or the difficulties with the consultancy contracts. We were kept informed at the meetings, but we only found out some things from the media.
How is your personal contact with Ms. Schlesinger? How close is it, how big is the distance between the chairman of the Broadcasting Council and the artistic director?
I have been Chair of the Broadcasting Council since 2013. In 2016, under my leadership, we elected Ms. Schlesinger as director. We’ve been working together ever since, and it’s intense business. But you mustn’t forget: I’m doing this job on a voluntary basis. Until a year ago I was a full-time pastor in Kreuzberg. That was my context. We actually never met in a professional context. When questions specific to the Broadcasting Council or RBB came up, we worked together. And otherwise each of us had very different lives. That’s also the charm of the Broadcasting Council: All 28 people who are currently on assignment come from different contexts. That’s why I believe that such a body is not only enriching for the RBB. We’re not the cool supervisory board that benefits materially from our position: we’re volunteering, me and everyone else too.
How do you prepare for such a Broadcasting Council meeting? Do you meet the director or other people from the station beforehand? The work of the broadcasting councils of all state broadcasters is coordinated by the ARD (GVK) committee chairmen’s conference. We are trying to standardize our procedures there. However, the GVK has no official legal status. In the end, each broadcasting council has to decide for itself. But our tasks are becoming increasingly complex. We are therefore trying to coordinate ARD-wide. Now there is a new state media treaty nationwide that assigns even more tasks to our honorary committees: for example setting guidelines, conducting a quality discourse.
That’s why we, as voluntary bodies, need more support. At the moment there is an office with 1.5 positions at RBB, which – to name just one aspect of the scope of work – prepares and follows up the meetings of all bodies, i.e. the broadcasting board, administrative board and all committees and the chairman and all, i.e. a total of 36 Board members who provide the necessary support. In the meantime, however, the questions have become so differentiated that further personnel support is required. If you take the current case: we are all representatives of social organizations in the Broadcasting Council. But we are not legal experts.
Does that mean you are calling for more expertise and professionalism for the Broadcasting Council?
Very clearly: yes. It would be the good in the bad if a crisis like this made it clear that a body like ours would have to be equipped differently in the future. We need more support. And I hope that the parliaments will understand that too and will do their part to ensure that we are better equipped in the future.
Professionalism also includes external communication. Why weren’t you, as chairwoman of the Broadcasting Council, in the meeting of the main committee of the Brandenburg state parliament?
The questions that the main committee had were addressed to the director. As Chair of the Broadcasting Council, I have the same need for clarification as the Main Committee. If I had appeared there alone, I would only have produced dissatisfaction because I could not have said anything about the ongoing proceedings. It is also important for me to emphasize here that we are broadcasting councils as representatives of society in public service broadcasting. The state broadcaster is represented by the director.
And how is the RBB supposed to get out of the negative headlines in the future?
If the examination procedure carried out by the law firm on behalf of the compliance officer does not bring any results, and if Patricia Schlesinger and Wolf-Dieter Wolf assure us that they have not done anything wrong, then we as the Broadcasting Council have none need for action. From my point of view, there are a lot of prejudices at play at the moment that I don’t want to get involved in. I hope for a clear result of the test procedure – and then we’ll see.